Justice as the Cornerstone for Social Progress

By Rev. Canon Francis Omondi

A UNICEF poster once depicted an African girl, with eyes reflecting a perilous future, at the same time wearing a hopeful smile. She responded, with just a word to the question, what would she want to be when she grew up.  “ALIVE” she said.

Being alive is to have food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities of life. To live without fear. It is the opportunity to work for one’s living. To have freedom at least, to reject decisions affecting one’s life but made without their participation. Having freedom of association, of speech, and of worship. Such things make us alive. Social progress means we are, alive. These are the basics of persons living in freedom and justice.

If justice means anything at all, it must protect life. While addressing the Lutheran International Conference on A Just Africa in September 1993 in Moshi Tanzania,  former president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, opined,  “… protecting life should be the purpose of social, economic, and political activities of governments at every level. Life is the most basic human right”.

Observing human rights facilitates peaceful co-existence and social and political stability. We predicate a democratic society on its respect for human rights. For this reason, The World Summit for Social Development adopted a human rights framework as part of its strategy to eradicate poverty. Implicit in the strategy is that a society that wants to achieve social justice ought to enforce social and economic rights.

Exposing weak social systems

However, in adopting the notion that social justice is the outcome of the market economy, and not a contrivance of the state, leaders fail in their basic task of protecting lives. Perhaps our situation in Kenya depicts this.

At the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic early 2020, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s asserted that “the coronavirus will test and mercilessly expose the shortcomings of every country’s health system, governance standards and social capital.”

Indeed, true to her words, the pandemic has badly exposed our government’s failures to set up social support structures for most Kenyans over the last half a century. According Kenyan economist and public intellectual David Ndii, “entrails of our dysfunctional governance, our venal political class, and the patronage oligarchy writ large—the hollow men…”

This school of thought, associated with globalization and the hegemony of the United States, is a principal obstacle to implementing social justice.

Breaking the hope

Governing columnist Alex Marshall in his most recent book, The Surprising Design of Market Economies, showed how governments create free markets by, and cannot exist without its props. Governments, he writes, “create the legal framework trading requires, provide police and courts to enforce laws and contracts, and build the ‘commons’- roads, bridges, ports and other facilities necessary for commerce.”

In our case, the government seems to have broken the promised hope, which should hold our society together. The belief, for example, that if we work hard, obey the law, and get good education, we can achieve stable employment, social status, mobility and financial security is no longer true.

Kenya’s challenge is not what presents, as in the “dynasties” vs. “hustlers” political tiffs. Our lives are cheap for either of them. The capture of political and economic power, by the elites, is our problem. And the more concentrated wealth becomes as in corporate capitalism, the more damage it inflicts on society. This, along with redirecting our institutions toward the further consolidation of their power and wealth.

Our political elites have perfected the colonialists’ atrocious exploitation of Kenyans for profit. These fellows are cruel. They cash in on our fears, ratchet our tribal sentiments while pillaging the nation without improving the status of the wananchi. Even the aid aimed for the poor has not been spared.

Cost of political expediency

A recent World Bank’s study, Elite Capture of Foreign Aid: Evidence from Offshore Bank Accounts, published on 18th February 2020, established that in most recepient countries, a big percentage of foreign aid ends up in the pockets of ruling elites, politicians, bureaucrats and their cronies in the private sector involved in aid funded-projects.

The study found that aid disbursements “coincide with significant increases in deposits held in offshore financial centres known for bank secrecy”. So, implying that whenever foreign aid lands in their country, the ruling politicians, bureaucrats and their friends stash billions of dollars in secret offshore banks, in Switzerland and Luxembourg where secrecy is paramount.

It empowers them (by legal backing) to pillage the nation, amass obscene wealth, and wield unchecked political and legal control. The result has been the obliteration of primary social bonds that once held the nation together. No funds for education, public transport, housing, medicines and healthcare services, and employment public service providers.

For Kenya’s case, despite it being the fourth-largest economy by GDP in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) after Nigeria, South Africa, and Angola, and with a GDP of $109bn, her economic success has eluded the vast majority. The wealth inequalities are obscene.

How can 90% of Kenya’s wealth be in the hands of less than 10,000 out of a population of 47.6 million? This grim reality has lingered. The UK based New World Wealth survey (2014), conducted over five years, on wealth distribution in Kenya showed that 46% of the country’s 43.1 million people lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Kshs.172 ($2) a day.

Besides, a tiny clique of 8,300 super- wealthy individuals, control nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Kshs. 4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy, highlighting the chasm between the rich and the poor.

Justice and rule of law

In his book, The Philosophy of Liberty: An Essay on Political Philosophy, Kenyan philosopher, the late Odera Oruka opines that world poverty problem is not  just a moral question of charity or humanitarian help. It is not even a question of restitution, but a matter of justice, and ultimately a question of enforceable law.

Odera considers protecting a minimum standard of living for everyone, which he calls the “right to a human minimum”, a basic need for global justice. The right to be a human minimum is an inalienable right to self-preservation. And since a human being’s right to self-preservation is the basic necessity for making use of other rights, denying it causes the loss of essential functions of a human being.

However, our leaders’ position on justice has been benevolence, or charity. They pass gifts and resources to people in need, for medical fundraising, business start-ups, educational and funeral gifts… ostensibly they fund these charities from their own resources, while others draw funds from Constituency Development Funds (CDF), or government budget allocations. Wananchi, so seldomly express gratitude for their generosity, accept this as the norm and demand more of it.

Hallmarks of a just society

Justice matters, if we are to avoid using benevolence as an instrument of oppression in the manner of the political class. Embracing justice will enable us to put a break on paternalistic benevolence. And so, cut the prevalent paternalistic development in Kenya, where those in power assume to know what we need.

Justice is present in a society where its members stand to each other in the normative social relationship of being treated as they have a right to be treated. According to Ulpian, justice is rendering to each according to one’s due “ius” virtue of justice.

Whenever there is justice, the society renders its members what they have a right to.  Wolterstorff makes an important distinction in one possessing a right and being rendered to that right. Not being rendered that right does not mean one does not possess that right. One is just being deprived of it. One is being wronged. So, not giving Kenyans means to enhance life is wronging Kenyans.

Oruka asserts that for all human beings to function with a significant degree of rationality and self-awareness, they need a certain minimum amount of physical security, health care, and subsistence. Below this minimum, one may still be human and alive but cannot successfully carry out the functions of a moral agent or engage in creative activity.

Nexus between human rights and justice

The Government ought to grant Kenyans their right to be human beings. For in not treating her citizens as illustrated above is to wrong and demean them. We cannot excuse this injustice. Failing to develop policies that improve the lives of Kenyans, shielding them from need of patronage feeds into this cycle.

We cannot have “A Just Kenya” if you think of civic rights alone, or social rights alone, or economic rights alone. In a just social unit, we interlink these rights.

Do the present national economic policies promote or harm the well-being of majority of Kenyans and children in particular? If harm, then what must we do? Rather, what should we do to promote justice?

If human rights are to become the framework for social development, then fundamental reforms in the human rights regime are necessary. Such will include accepting the implications of human rights’ universality and discussing its relevance as a common core to all facets of society.

During the 1993 Moshi Conference I alluded to above, Nyerere cautioned clergymen and women,  “Life is the first right. But we are not animals. Adults can decide, and do decide, to fight against what seem to them gross social injustice–things like apartheid, or colonialism, or religious oppression”.

He warned that the populace may opt for armed solution if they believe that their political options are threatened; or if they see no other way of changing policies undermining the economical basis of their life. There is an overt connection between economics and peace.

So, it does matter that we make justice a cornerstone for social progress. It is the peoples’ responsibility to achieve this. For we cannot and we will not build a just society, without ethics by our citizens, and on their leaders.

Those with the responsibility of leadership must ask this hard question: “Am I exploiting for personal gain the opportunities provided by an unjust system, or am I trying to live according to my principles despite that system?

Oh, if only I had my way. I wish l had,  to quote the blind Willie Johnson in his rendition- “If I had my way”,  in this wicked world, I would also want to tear this building down.

Canon Francis Omondi is a priest of the ACK All Saints Cathedral Diocese; He is an Adjunct lecturer at St. Paul’s University Limuru.

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